On Jan. 26, the Texas Student Chapter of the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers and law students, hosted a “Campus Free Speech Symposium” at the University of Texas (UT) School of Law in Austin, TX. Judges, professors and free speech advocates spoke on panels discussing free speech on college campuses.
The first panel was about the “Chilling Effect and the Suppression of Student Speech.” Nicky Neily, the president of Speech First, an organization dedicated to protecting students’ right to free speech on college campuses, addressed college speech codes in which terms such as ‘unwelcome’ or ‘offensive’ speech are ubiquitous. These codes shift the questions from “what was said?” to “is someone offended?” In response, students tend to censor themselves in order to avoid potential sanctions. Neily criticized how colleges are teaching students to tattle when they are offended instead of addressing the issue themselves. “What’s happening on campus isn’t staying on campus, and that should bother us,” said Neily.
UT Professor of Philosophy Tara A. Smith explained that speech regulations are illegitimate because “no language is inherently offensive” and it is impossible to define offensive speech because ‘offensive’ is fundamentally subjective. Smith also claimed limits on speech are ineffective because they cause self-censorship, which “treats symptoms but not the disease.”
“Silenced ideas do not dissolve … they persist.”UT Professor of Philosophy Tara A. Smith.
UT Law Professor David M. Rabban disagreed with Smith’s First Amendment absolutism and expressed his belief that there is “some speech that could be regulated on a campus but not in the public square.” Rabban is comfortable limiting speech he finds “unnecessary to the expression of ideas.” As an example, Rabban suggested that for a student to make a claim such as “homosexuality is a disease” is fine, but to call another student a crude name which makes fun of homosexuals disrupts learning and is okay to limit. Neily said she understood Rabban’s concern but is “distrustful of any administrator having the power to draw that line.”
Ken Paxton, the Texas Attorney General, gave the keynote address. Paxton praised the Federalist Society for its work defending the Constitution. As a twist on the popular saying, ‘I may disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it,’ Paxton claimed the Left is now saying “I disagree with what you say, and I will fight to the death for my right not to hear it.”
The next panel focused on the current state of free speech on university campuses. Neily explained how campuses silence students not only with direct speech regulations, but also by imposing extra fees and security expenses on ‘controversial’ speakers, not recognizing certain student groups, and much more. “Campus free speech is the most important issue in America today” Dr. Thomas Lindsay, the director of the Center for Innovation in Education for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said. Lindsay believes students are being silenced by “those with stronger vocal cords, those better at intimidating other students.”
Mr. Hiram Sasser, the General Council for First Liberty Institute, spoke with Aaron Streett, the chair of Baker Botts’ Supreme Court and Constitution Law Practice, and University of Virginia School of Law Professor Douglas Laycock about religious liberty and associational rights.
Streett and Laycock discussed at length the Supreme Court case Christian Legal Society (CLS) Chapter v. Martinez, in which the University of California Hastings College of Law would not recognize the CLS chapter as a student organization because it required students to hold certain Christian beliefs, and California law requires student organizations to not discriminate based on status or beliefs. The Supreme Court held that the CLS’s First Amendment rights were not violated because the law was viewpoint neutral.
“Many laws are neutral in their face but are not neutrally applied,” said Streett. Laycock supported Streett’s comment, adding that many groups impose certain exclusions, but conservative Christian groups are disproportionately attacked by campus administrations and in court.
There were approximately 30 people in the audience. The symposium was open to all members of the community. The audience was mainly comprised of young professionals and many Federalist Society members. Four students from Trinity University’s chapter of The Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) were in attendance. Isaiah Mitchell, chairman of Trinity’s YCT chapter, said he was “surprised to learn that Texas campuses are so restrictive when it comes to speech codes. It’s just one more example of how our state isn’t as free as outsiders think.”
Also in attendance was Ashley Vaughan, Communications Director of YCT’s state board. “As a recent UT [alumna], it’s very encouraging to know there are ongoing conversations about free speech on campus. Free speech and the ability to openly debate are essential to a healthy university campus,” said Vaughan.